Gail Omvedt was a towering figure in the social sciences in India for decades. Author of over 25 books and a series of well-received columns for the Hindu of yesteryears, she was also an incisive and insightful analyst of Indian society, and a grounded grassroots activist as well. Despite being born and educated in the US, she made India her home after her doctoral research work on the work of non Brahman people’s movements like that of the Phule couple.
She married Bharat Patankar, the doctor son of an eminent freedom-fighter couple in rural Maharashtra, and made her home in Kasegaon, a small village in Sangli, district of Maharashtra. They have a daughter, Prachi, who lives in the US. Gail took Indian citizenship as far back as 1983. With her husband and intrepid mother-in-law, Indutai Patankar, she co-founded the Shramik Mukti Dal, a movement of the agrarian workers, marginal farmers and Adivasis. She was also part of the Stri Mukti Sanghatan Chalval, a struggle by women in rural Maharashtra.
But her real heritage is as the one who, along with her teacher Eleanor Zelliott, who brought the works and thoughts of Phule and Ambedkar alive to the larger world of academia. In India, Dr.Ambedkar’s works and achievements were little known or studied as the mainstream academics tended to resist any school of thought that did not conform to certain intellectual traditions, namely left-oriented or Brahminical. As a student of the work of Non Brahmin social revolutionaries and spiritual leaders, Gail chose to be the voice of the marginalized sections who didn’t figure in mainstream discourses.
Thus it was that she was a very strong critic, for instance, of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which, according to her, failed to raise up leaders from among the people, or offer credible solutions to the issues of drought-hit famers in Maharashtra and Sourashtra in its criticism of the big dam approach to water management.
She articulated this in the famous open letter to Arundhati Roy, responding to the support Arundhati had extended to the NBA’s struggle.
In later years, she and Arundhati met and according to Obed Manwatkar, a young scholar activist, “ I am the living witness of this talk, Gail gave amazing lessons to Arundhati and she accepted it with all the respect to her. Arundhati was very clear that she is still learning and a lot to learn about activism, only intellectuals can understand it.”
She was also a chronicler of the literature and world-view of the numerous people’s spiritual leaders who were widely popular among the working class masses : the Varkari movement, for instance, threw up many poets whose works critiqued the brahminical practices and idea of God. She learnt Marathi and Sanskrit and brought to the fore many poems, songs and lyrics of poets like Tuka – she insisted that ‘Tukaram’ was a brahminical imposition and that the real name of the noted poet was Tuka – also Chokamela, Janbai, Kabir, Namdev, and Ravidas, whose term Begumpura (City without sorrow ) -finds itself in the title of one of her most popular books, Seeking Begumpura. The book explores the utopian imaginaries of these saint-poets, which reveal a yearning for a world freedom of movement and speech, and without exploitation: clearly a dream of those who suffered exclusion, silencing and exploitation : the “lowered” castes.
Braj Ranjan Mani, author, who was her friend, says in his tribute to her “Blending theory with praxis, Omvedt brought together diverse liberating aspects of Marxism, feminism and Ambedkarism and broke new ground in understanding Indian society.”
While mainstream and online media including The Hindu, The Wire, Scroll.in and others carried tributes, what is intriguing is the muted response to her passing from academic circles and the women’s movement. In a contrast, there has been an outpouring of grief and tributes from people’s movements, Dalit and Ambedkarite groups and others including the CM of Maharashtra.
This is yet another instance of how even towering personalities like Ambedkar, Gail Omvedt and Savitri Bai and Jotirao Phule are given short shrift in India by the brahminical establishment, since they all worked to correct the imbalance and were able to, by their intellect, counter the exclusionary discourse and speak the (unsavory) truth to those in power.
If only Gail had been willing to compromise a little and kowtow a little to Gandhi’s thought she would have been the darling of academia and have enjoyed the fruits of her labours in terms of fame and acceptance. It’s a testimonial to her intellectual honesty that she stayed true to her convictions and choose to keep her allegiance with the marginalised, the Dalits, Adivasis, workers, the rural poor working classes till the end.
Her life will be the yardstick by which true allyship will be tested. Very few will be able to meet the standards she set with her rigour, the prolific and grounded nature of her research and writings. Most of all, she has left the entire world a pristine example of how real humanity can transcend colour, race, nationality, educational accomplishment, privilege and be one with the people’s lives and concerns.
I’ve heard Gail chant this several times in meetings.
Eeda Peeda javo, Balichya rajya yevo!
Let miseries and sorrows go, and let the reign of (the righteous king) Bali come!
Jai Bhim! Jai Joti! Jai Baliraja!
With Gail, we say Amen to this thought.
Cynthia Stephen is a social activist
Originally published in Outlook India